When you first come up with an idea for a story, you don’t have to think too hard about what it is you like about the story. Something catches your interest. One idea follows another and you’re off and running.
Later, when you’re deep in the belly of the beast, maybe stuck in the middle of the first draft, or struggling with the umpteenth rewrite, the very point of writing as a use of your time comes into question. You liked the idea as an idea, but this sprawling mess in front of you doesn’t seem to be that thing at all.
Why are you even bothering? Who is going to read this? Aren’t there already a thousand stories like this? What’s on TV?
You have to be able to hold onto the thing that made you want to write this particular story. When the going gets tough (and it will) you need that thing to get you through. But first you need to work out what thing is.
Often, writers don’t like to pinpoint their own view on their writing. What they like. Why they like it. It feels like you’re killing the magic if you do that. But you can’t be a magician and also be delighted by magic tricks. Comedians see the punchline coming. It’s hard to hold onto the joy of stories when you start writing seriously. The joy in other people’s stories gets less easy to see, and the joy in your own can disappear altogether.
I would suggest this. When you write a story, try to think about what it is about the story that appeals to you. I don’t mean a pithy logline in 25 words or less. This isn’t an exercise in marketing to lazy agents. Consider what aspect of this story is most attractive to you. It can be as clichéd and corny as you like. The idea of a girl with everything against her, getting the guy. The loser who everyone’s has written off turning things round. The couple who hate each other who end up together. Whatever, just be honest with yourself.
A novel is a big undertaking. It takes something akin to obsession to complete. It doesn't matter what grabs your attention, it's not what the reader's going to see, it's for you personally. Own up to it, and then enjoy it.
But be wary of cheating yourself. Let’s say you’re writing a romance where the couple start out detest each other, and then get together. Personally I’m very fond of those sorts of stories. I like to see them at each other’s throats and my desire to see them get together keeps me invested. But if I was the writer, I get to control what happens and it would be very tempting to slip in a line here or there suggesting the characters will get together. She slams down the phone and calls him all sorts of names, and then thinks about his gorgeous blue eyes, damn, if only he wasn’t so handsome.
In effect what I’m doing is myself the ending I want early-instant gratification. That nod to her undeniable attraction to him tells me, and the reader, don’t worry, these two kids belong together, and suddenly all the tension is gone. From me, from you, from the story. And now I just don’t feel as interested in it anymore. Strange that.
When we write the kind of stories we like to read, those parts that feel frustrating are what give us the big rush when we get to the finish. If you slipping in little nods and winks to a happy resolution, you’re not doing yourself or the reader any favours.
The other thing to bear in mind is that once you identify what it is that turns you on about the story you’re writing, don’t start with that element, build up to it.
That’s not to say you should digress for the first fifty pages—you need to make it as interesting as possible—but if you get into it right away, you’re going to eat all the favourite chocolates first and be left with the cherry liqueur.
If you’ve got a Cinderella story, and the suffering of poor, perfect Cinders is something that always warms your heart (she did nothing to deserve such horrid treatment, just like me at high school) then don’t start with that part of the story.
I’m not saying make the thing you like the central and most obvious part of your story. You definitely shouldn’t do that. But be aware of that aspect of the story. Build up to the good bits. Don’t cheat yourself by rushing to a happy ending (or sad ending if that’s how you roll), deny yourself as long as possible. And when things get a bit like hard work, remember the thing that got your juices going and see if you can’t work a bit more of that into the story.
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